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Jacob's Ladder [RSC Film Club 22]


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It's October, so it's time for a horror film, and for the second month in a row we're watching @djw180's pick, the 1990 psychological horror Jacob's Ladder.  

Jacob's Ladder | One Sheet | Movie Posters | Limited Runs

Directed by Adrian Lyne, who also bought us Flashdance, Jacob's Ladder stars Tim Robbins as a Vietnam veteran who is haunted by the horrors of war as he tries to adjust to civilian life.  This is a hallucinatory nightmare world of PTSD that Roger Ebert called a "thoroughly painful and depressing experience" and one that was "powerfully written, directed and acted."  The supporting cast includes Elizabeth Peña, Danny Aiello, Jason Alexander and, in smaller roles, Kyle Gass from Tenacious D and Macaulay Culkin.  Although it was not a huge hit when it was released, it has since become a cult classic and has influenced the likes of the Silent Hill videogame franchise and films like The Sixth Sense.  Another Film Club film that I have yet to experience but am looking forward to doing so.

according to this, you're already dead.

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I vaguely remember this film as obviously I must have watched it during Blockbuster and Chill back in the day. That was before I knew what a cinematographer was, so I look forward to revisiting it plus that's my man, Andy Dufresne and all. 

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  • 3 weeks later...

I picked this and as I've said before I don't like many horror films and didn't really remember this as a horror film, but it's in lists of 100-best horror films etc. Having re-watched it I still don't see this as horror, so apologies to those big horror fans. But then some of the other horror films we have had in Film club didn't seem like horror to me either, so I guess it's just my definition of horror. I do not see this as horror because, to me, it's not scary. There is the odd bit of monster special effects, but nothing that horrific, certainly not that much in the way of blood and gore. And that is why I like it. It has the tension and supernatural themes of most horror films, without the things I don't like. Here's a good place to point out if you get the DVD with special features, which I got a copy of, then it has a couple of deleted scenes, both from towards the end of the film. One of these does have some more traditional horror content. Jacob in bed looking up at he ceiling, blood starts to drop down on him, he starts violently shaking unable to move away, a tentacle comes through the plaster and we see a monstrous eye I the hole. I can see why this scene was left out. It was adding something the film did not need. I'll refer to this again in a spoiler section at the end.


This is another film I could probably re-tell the entire story of. But I definitely won't try to do that because that would be a massive spoiler for anyone who hasn't watched it. The story could be confusing to some as it switches from one time-line to another, or is it one reality to another? One moment Jacob (Tim Robbins) is fighting in Vietnam, next he's with his girlfriend (the very s*xy Elizabeth Peňa) years after the war, then he's back with his wife and kids before the war. Danny Aiello (great actor) plays a chiropractor, Louis, treating Jacob for the after effects of war injuries but also helping treat the effects on Jacobs mind. He is a key character and I wish he had been in a couple more scenes. But one of the scenes he is in pretty much explains exactly what is going on, although I didn't get that first time I watched this. The basic story is of Jacob suffering the physical and psychological effects of the injuries he received in Vietnam starting to see there is something more to it, something sinister and supernatural as he catches glimpses of faceless demons, horns sprouting from a nurse's head etc and he's not the only one this is happening to.


I said when this got selected for Film club that me and friend saw this as the cinema without knowing anything about it in advance. We both came out the cinema not quite sure what the film was really about, and then about 20 minutes later it suddenly all became clear. And I love it when films do that. Watching this again for maybe the 4th time I have seen it now, there was still the odd thing I noticed that I didn't remember noticing in the past, again something I really like. The settings for the film are often very dirty and bleak, I'm guessing deliberately so to add to the atmosphere. So it's certainly not one those films with lavish, vivid sets and costumes that I often like. It's all about the story and acting for me, which is generally great all round. I even like Macaulay Culkin in this despite my usual hatred of child actors.


There are plot elements you could pick wholes in, see spoilers below. But we allow films to get away with this sort of artistic license when they are entertaining and / or though provoking. This is both.





The extra scene I mentioned. Michael, the chemist who helped invent the drug Ladder tells Jacob he has a kind of antidote. So they go to Michael's apartment and he gives Jacob this drug, inducing the bloody ceiling scene, after which Jacob is 'cured'. To me this scene was rightly left out. Jacob didn't need to be cured of the effects of Ladder. The effects were psychological and he was cured once he had figured out the truth in his own mind.


What was the film actually all about? I've not read any other write ups on this so I'm not sure if I what I understand is what was intended or there are other theories. Jacobs' unit was a given a drug in Vietnam designed to increase their urge to fight and lessen their fear. It worked too much. One group of American soldiers attacked another and Jacob receives a mortal wound. The entire film actually takes place in Vietnam, most of it in Jacob's mind as he fights for his life during surgery in an army hospital. His subconscious wants to know why a fellow American soldier attacked him and will not let go until it has the answers. So in Jacobs mind he sees himself surviving the war, going back home to New York, his marriage breaking down and years later starting to see the demons. But as chiropractor Louis explains, the philosopher Descartes said there is no difference between angels and demons. They both just try to persuade your soul that it has to leave your body when the time comes. What makes the difference is how you perceive them. If think they are trying to rip your soul out then you see demons, if they are more gentle then they are angels; in the film Jacob's Girlfriend Jezzie, his long dead son Cabe, Michael and Louis himself. So once Jacob has figured it out he can, and does, die in peace. This does of course raise questions like how did Jacob's subconscious know about Ladder and that Michael helped create it? or has he just invented an explanation?


Edited by djw180
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  • 4 weeks later...

Jacob's Ladder (1990)


The Awesome:  The "horror" moments were done well and the gory psychiatric hospital scenes were beautiful and haunting. That is where we get most of the gore and were my favorite parts. The message of the film is brilliant regarding letting go of everything once we arrive at our deathbeds. Tim Robbins brought such a likability and vulnerability to Jacob which I felt was important because the film is so disorienting with all the many dimensions and delirium thrown at us that the main character has to keep us grounded and entertained and Tim Robbins does this through scenes of him crying over his son to lighter moments with his fellow soldiers, he just delivers and I did care about finding a solution to his problem. The entire cast did amazing work. Elizabeth Peña (Jezzie) and Danny Aiello (Louis) really have equally standout performances and Aiello almost steals the entire film with his subtle performance. The cinematography was perfect for the story it was telling and the lighting in some scenes really make a difference in keeping you on edge. The bathtub fever scene with the neighbors pouring ice cubes on Jacob is another example of how even the extras were compelling and while we are talking about this scene, this entire sequence is cerebrally satisfying as we get the dream within the dream after Jacob awakes from the fever. The concept of "Hell is what we make it" was one I didn't think I would have been contemplating as I went to bed.


The Good: The visuals were powerful. The shock of Jezzie burning and throwing away what I thought were Jacob's precious, precious photos contrasted the soft father and son moments, the trip through hell hospital, and the devil nightclub s*x scene...were all just really well framed and crafted cinematic storytelling candy. The gore was really fantastic and they should be proud of the life-like body parts that littered the hospital floors, trust me, I am the authority on real guts gore authenticity.  Not portraying the demons and saints the way we have been taught to imagine them as beasts was a stroke of brilliance by the filmmaker and when the demons show up, we have no idea who they are and why the don't just have the permission to end Jacob's life. I really love the endless layers in this film, like when Jezzie shows up at the final operating room...you see her and you think for a second that she is there to rescue Jacob but then you see how she is dressed and it makes you think about why she is there and how seeing someone you trust become part of people you are afraid of is  really terrifying as the fear of betrayal is a real human fear. My favorite book of all time is The Divine Comedy (1321) by Dante Alighieri and I sh*t you not, I spent the last two weeks studying Gustave Dore's extensive works due to my annual revisiting of everything The Divine Comedy, no doubt this film reminded me of the Inferno section of the book and I was even expecting the character of Louis to start walking with Jacob, I expected Louis to become Jacob's "Virgil" but what we got was better with Louis as the Chiropractor serving as a fantastic internal and external metaphor for Jacob and also for myself. The symbolism of the coins in the film were a nice touch and the only reason I understood them was again from Dante's Inferno and his encounter with Charon and how some cultures still bury their dead with coins on their eyes as to have the currency to pay Charon to take them across the Acheron and if you have no f*cking idea what i'm talking about and you like amazing sh*t, look all that up and be amazed. Not having everything spelled out for me was cool and while I did want some clarity, like with the Gabe (Macaulay Culkin) tragedy, it wasn't enough for me to count it as a negative. 


The Bad: Not enough gore. Yes, we get some quality stuff in the last act but I found the horror too ambiguous early on and not being sure about what I was seeing whether was real or a hallucination, really distracted from feeling horrified by it since it was more about imagery than say slaughter and I think that is where the film let me down since it was labeled a horror and was more of a thriller or mystery. You have to be in the mental state to watch something like this that transcends time and space and dimensions or you will easily get lost and lose interest in the story. A second viewing may be required to fully understand how everything is woven together to make sense.


The Gabe tragedy confused me as I thought the guilt Jacob felt was due to him not being home for his child when he was hit by that car. I did not associate the car crashing into the bicycle as Jacob being the one behind the wheel. Not after watching those scenes with the "demons" in the Government vehicle driving so ridiculously reckless that I actually chuckled a few times at the absurdity of burning that much rubber without being chased.


The Ugly: The story is told in such a fragmented way that following it can too abstruse for some people and it can lead to feeling bored---- especially when it's marketed as a horror film and most people like their horror films to be fast paced. While the payoff is rewarding in the end, I can see why people don't get "it" and say that the film confuses and mixes too many elements at once. The film is already disorienting enough and then we get a scene where Jacob dreams his life with Jezzie is just a nightmare and then we are pulled back into that exact scenario we were just told mere minutes beforehand was not even real. While I didn't have a problem following the somewhat confusing transitions from life to death, there was one moment where I felt it didn't make sense and that is when Geary (Jason Alexander) tells Jacob he will not be taking the case because...."You never went to Vietnam". That made me think that the war scenes were now a hallucination and nothing was even real, like what was the point of watching this when everything is just a dream. Thankfully the film chooses a satisfying conclusion. 


Final Verdict...4/5... "If you're afraid of dying, and you're holdin' on, you'll see devils tearin' your life away. But if you've made your peace, then the devils are really angels, freein' you from the world. It all depends on how you look at it." , this quote is the most powerful thing I have heard in years and I found the implications profound. I mentioned my annual revisiting of The Divine Comedy, and this film works for me as a compliment to both cantiches "Purgatorio" and "Inferno" , as I viewed everything as Jacob descending into hell with the help of Louis, all while he traverses some sort of limbo or purgatory. As a story about an Army experiment gone wrong, well the film falls apart a bit for me there because honestly for that to have worked it would have meant something more sinister in my eyes, like Jacob slaughtering everyone and of course that would change the tone of the ending but that would have been serious horror and made the Army "Ladder" element more relevant than confusing. Overall it is a worth while viewing due to its central message of letting go of things that keep our spirits trapped, even in death. 

Edited by Con
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